Sony NEX-7 at a glance:
- 24.3-million-pixel Exmor APS-C HD CMOS sensor
- Bionz processor
- 2.359-million-dot XGA OLED electronic viewfinder
- Sony E-mount
- Sensor-shift stabilisation
- Tilting 3in, 921,600-dot, TruBlack LCD
- 10fps continuous shooting (speed priority)
- 1080p HD
- video capture
- Street price £1,000 (body only)
When Sony bought Konica Minolta’s camera division in 2006, there was much speculation about the impact the acquisition would have on the DSLR market. On one hand, Sony is a large technology company and a leader in many fields, including broadcast video, and therefore had the investing power and potentially the know-how to create a class-leading range of DSLRs. On the other hand, it lacked any photographic heritage and would be challenging long-established brands with huge followings including serious professional user bases. To Sony’s credit, five years later the company has an impressive line-up of cameras and a significant market share.
However, the introduction of a new type of camera was always going to benefit the non-traditional manufacturers, and the fresh start meant playing fields were levelled. The compact system category has seen companies such as Panasonic and Sony come into their own, and this latest NEX model is the most highly specified we’ve seen to date. Although compact system cameras (CSCs) are principally aimed at those users upgrading from compacts, they have proved popular among DSLR owners either as a second body or a replacement for their current model.
The new NEX-7 is definitely aimed at the advanced user, with a class-leading 24-million-pixel sensor, a host of manual controls and a premium price tag. It is the first Sony NEX model to feature a viewfinder, and is the first non-DSLR-shaped CSC to incorporate one in the body. The camera’s specification makes it a viable replacement or even an upgrade for many DSLR users, while high-end DSLR users can retain an extremely high resolution and high degree of control in a smaller body for times when a large camera is not appropriate or possible.
The NEX-7 matches Sony’s latest high-end SLT (pellicle mirror) camera, sharing the same sensor and electronic viewfinder with the Alpha 77, which scored very highly when we tested it in AP 15 October. It will be interesting to see if, without the semi-translucent mirror and phase-detection AF, the NEX-7 offers an equally good performance.
The decision to stick with the physically larger APS-C-sized sensor has added to the appeal of the NEX cameras over the micro four thirds models and has allowed the latest sensor to reach such high resolution.
The Exmor HD APS-C unit has 24.3 million effective pixels, and 24.7 million in total. This means that at full resolution a 6000×4000-pixel image is recorded, which equates to an A3 print at 342ppi, or a 20x13in print at 300ppi.
By default, JPEG images are saved at 350ppi, making them almost pre-sized for A3. Images can be saved in a choice of Standard or Fine JPEG compression, and also raw and a combined raw+JPEG, which uses the full Fine JPEG. The raw is in Sony’s ARW format and requires the Sony’s Image Data Suite to convert the files as none of the third-party programs currently supports the files.
The Bionz processor is the brain of the camera and is responsible for noise reduction, allowing the NEX-7 to provide a sensitivity range of ISO 100-16,000. An auto ISO setting allows a fixed range of ISO 100-1600 for standard shooting.
Fast data conversion allows burst shooting at up to 10fps in speed-priority mode, while still allowing adjustment of the exposure modes. The regular continuous shooting mode is at 3fps. Using a SanDisk Extreme Pro 8GB card, the camera can perform a burst of 17 JPEG files, 13 raw files or raw+JPEG files in speed priority mode. That’s a burst of 1.3-1.7secs before filling the buffer.
In regular continuous mode 13 raw+JPEG files, 17 raw files or a more significant 48 JPEG files can be saved. That is a burst of between 4.3secs and 16secs, which is more suitable for prolonged action sequences.
As the camera doesn’t feature a regular data writing lamp it is difficult to judge exact write times per file, but by filling the buffer the delay before the review screen becomes active is between 6secs and 17secs, depending on the file type. This means that individual write times reach at least 0.35sec for JPEG and 1.3secs for raw+JPEG, which is very impressive for such a large file size.
The lens mount is Sony’s new E-mount system, which offers compatibility with a range of seven lenses, plus two adapters for the 16mm to give a wider-angle view. Sony A-mount lenses and older Konica Minolta Dynax lenses are compatible via an adapter due later this month, which also includes a phase-detection module and pellicle mirror to improve AF performance. The kit lens due to be offered with the NEX-7 is an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6, which appears relatively compact on this body, but feels a bit limiting for the level of camera and suffers from both pincushion and barrel distortion (which can be corrected in-camera). Without a fast aperture zoom lens currently available in the E-mount, your only other option is to go for the 24mm f/1.8 and 50mm f/1.8 primes.
The NEX-7 features the SteadyShot Inside sensor-shift mechanism, which provides stabilisation for any lens placed on the camera. This keeps the size and cost of the optics down and means that even older lenses, attached via adapters, are stabilised. This also helps with dust reduction and a special cleaning mode features in the menu.
Metering comes via a 1,200-zone system, which uses the image sensor itself and offers multi-segment, centreweighted and spot options. Exposure compensation is available in 1⁄3 or 2⁄3 stops for ±5EV.
The imaging-sensor-based autofocus system uses the contrast-detection method and offers a choice of multi, centre or spot options. Spot AF is available from any one of 187 points across the frame, although it doesn’t quite reach the edges. There is also a choice of single and continuous modes, object tracking, plus face detection and face priority for registered faces.
Alongside the regular exposure modes the NEX-7 offers intelligent auto, which recognises the scene and applies adjustments to suit. There are eight scene modes, an anti-motion blur setting (which uses the widest aperture) and auto ISO settings. Sweep panorama comes in either 2D or 3D modes, and creates a 12,416×1856-pixel 2D or 7152×1080-pixel 3D image.
The built-in flash unit provides a guide number of 6m @ ISO 100, while a hotshoe accepts external flashguns. Storage is via SD cards, with SDHC/XC formats supported.
Image: This enlarged section of an image shows the high level of detail in raw and JPEG
Features In Use: The Viewfinder
Although the NEX-7 uses the same resolution and technology as the electronic finder in the Alpha 77, there are subtle differences between the cameras. The same magnification is achieved, but eye-relief in the Alpha 77 is 4mm greater.
When used side by side, however, the two EVFs appear identical. As electronic viewfinders go, these are certainly the best on the market and they outperform all other current CSC viewfinder options. Although many photographers may have preferred to see an optical finder, or even a hybrid configuration, on this camera, the electronic through-the-lens view delivers much more accurate framing information.
The brightness of the view adjusts to replicate the true metered brightness, but I found it still difficult to judge exposure accurately on the screen without using the histogram display. However, with the histogram on the screen and your eye fixed to the eyecup, it is possible to make more critical decisions about the shot than would be possible on an optical screen.
Build and handling
The NEX-7 is bigger than the previous NEX models, which makes the lens feel more in proportion with the body, but it is still considerably more compact than any DSLR model and significantly smaller than the Leica M9, a camera with which it will be compared.
Made from magnesium alloy, the body is solid, and although the grip is quite shallow it is wide and textured with a rubberised leatherette feel, extending around to the back of the camera for thumb placing and enabling a secure hold.
The electronic viewfinder is positioned on the far left of the rear panel, in much the same position as you would expect to find a rangefinder viewing screen, and has presumably been placed there to avoid the light path without adding to the height of the camera. Around the viewfinder is a stiff rubberised and fixed eyepiece to block external light.
A small sensor sits inside the hood to switch the screen on when your eye is put up to the finder. This saves battery life as the rear screen is not left on constantly. There’s a brief, and off-putting, delay before the viewfinder screen comes to life. Battery life is very good overall, and although quoted at around 430 shots, I managed nearly 800 before having to recharge.
The inclusion of a built-in flash has become somewhat of a novelty for compact system cameras, so it was reassuring to see one in the NEX-7. With its central position it springs up high above the lens when the flash button is pressed. The rear screen is mounted on a tilt mechanism, as with previous NEX models, rather than the more advanced tilt-and-angle system used on the Alpha 77. This allows roughly a 135° adjustment and is sufficient for both high- and low-level viewing, including tripod use. The only angles it really lacks are for viewing from the sides or in front of the lens.
Image: Using the tilting screen, it is possible to compose extreme low angle shots such as this.
As many of the buttons on the NEX-7 are customisable, function marking is scarce. The two placed directly next to the LCD screen are easily identified as their functions appear on the screen itself, by default accessing the main menu and focusing options. The control dial, too, is represented on the screen, with both its central button (which controls the shooting mode) and the rotation control (which deals with ISO settings) labelled.
When the camera is first turned on or the mode changed, icons on the screen also show for the two large unmarked dials to the right of the top-plate. These function dials generally operate as shutter, aperture and exposure compensation controls, and although having them placed next to one another in this way is unusual (as opposed to one at thumb and one at finger position), it is no more difficult to use and easily adapted to.
An additional unmarked button sits next to the shutter button, which, by default, offers focus point adjustment, but can be changed for a range of functions, including white balance, creative styles and picture effects. Not having a physical mode dial is not as annoying as I thought it might be, especially as a single press of a button brings a large shooting dial onto the screen. This screen dial can still be turned via the rotating wheel on the rear.
The layout of the functions perhaps takes more getting used to than those on a traditional DSLR, as they are more unusual. It really doesn’t take long, though, before they fall to the fingers, and you’ll soon be able to make adjustments without taking your eye away from the viewfinder.
Noise, resolution and sensitivity
The 24.3-million-pixel sensor in the NEX-7 is the same as that used in the Alpha 77 SLT (single lens translucent) model.
The main difference between the cameras is that the Alpha 77 directs 30% of its light away from the sensor to the phase-detection system. With more light on the sensor, the mirror-free NEX-7 should perform better in low light.
At ISO 100, the NEX-7 hits an impressive 32 on our resolution chart with both JPEG and raw files – matching that of the Alpha 77.
By ISO 3200, resolution starts to fall, but only to a respectable 26 (the Alpha 77 resolved to 24). At ISO 12,800, the NEX-7 stays slightly ahead, remaining at 24 for the raw and JPEG compared to 22 and 18 respectively for the Alpha 77.
Noise is very well controlled in the JPEG files, remaining completely free of colour noise even at the highest ISO 16,000 setting and repressing luminance noise effectively even at ISO 6400, although detail suffers because of it.
Even in raw files, with noise reduction turned off, noise only starts to become destructive above ISO 3200 and colour noise is only present in the top two settings.
For most scenes it is quite safe shooting at ISO 100-1600, although the lowest setting should still be chosen for optimum performance.
Sony NEX-7 Resolution
Resolution & Noise: These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart, captured using the standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens at 38mm f/8 setting. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity.
White Balance and Colour
The auto white balance remains reliable in the NEX-7 for most scenes, giving rich colours in bright daylight and natural skin tones under the cooler evening light, and even remaining neutral under fluorescent lighting.
There is a full range of white balance presets, however, including four fluorescent modes, custom reading and colour temperature control.
JPEG images have more contrast than the raw files by default, but they are by no means over the top and they can be used straight from the camera.
A full range of creative styles is available in the colour menu for different effects, from a brash-looking vivid through to black & white.
Image: Skin tones appear very natural even under cool light using the auto white balance setting
Using full multi-segment metering, the camera handles a range of scenes with ease. For some situations I opted to expose to the right using the histogram display, which involved increasing the exposure by up to 1EV.
However, the sensor loses highlights quite easily, so creating the slightly darker images presented by the metering was usually preferable.
With high-contrast scenes or specific effects I had to adjust the exposure compensation by up to 1 stop in either direction. This kind of compensation is to be expected, and with such a wide adjustment range on the dial I was free to add as much creative input as I wanted.
Image: According to the histogram in-camera, the +0.7EV should have delivered a perfect exposure but in practice 0EV or -0.7EV is preferred
Although we have not been able to gain dynamic range measurements to date for the NEX-7, when the same sensor on the Alpha 77 was tested it scored an impressive 13.2EV on DxOMark.com, which puts it on par with the Sony Alpha 580 and Fujifilm FinePix S5 Pro, although slightly behind the Pentax K-5 and Nikon D7000.
With the lack of a mirror in the light path I would expect the NEX-7 to match this maximum score, but tail off less rapidly as the ISO was increased.
Among the options in the brightness and colour menu are those for a dynamic range optimiser and auto HDR. The dynamic range optimiser provides a subtle but effective improvement to shadow and highlight areas to maintain an even tone curve, while HDR is effective with manual control of between 1 and -6EV.
Contrast-detection autofocus systems have come a long way since the first live view attempts on DSLRs, and even in the short time that compact system cameras have been around.
By increasing the output channels and speeds from the sensor and tweaking algorithms, the best contrast AF systems are difficult to distinguish from phase-detection versions in good light and are often more accurate in their focus.
The system on the NEX-7 is about as quick as we’ve seen, matching that of the latest Panasonic and Olympus models, while in low light it seems to offer even better performance, even using the relatively small-aperture kit lens.
Using the flexible-spot AF it is possible to get a precise position for the focus in a scene and only very rarely did it show any sign of hunting backwards and forwards.
When shooting in extreme low-light conditions it seemed to switch to a more general area AF when focusing couldn’t be achieved, which meant I could continue shooting. For continuous shooting a lack of focus seems to stall the burst rate.
The object-tracking and continuous-focusing systems work well together for maintaining a lock on a moving subject, but the performance starts to struggle in low light. When compared to other contrast AF systems, the NEX-7’s is way ahead of the competition and will even give some DSLRs with phase detection a run for their money.
LCD, viewfinder and video
Once you are using the electronic viewfinder, it is impossible not to be impressed with the quality of the image. In good light the 2.359-million-dot resolution becomes difficult to distinguish from that of an optical image, and although the image shows signs of noise in low light it stays bright enough for clear viewing relative to the exposure settings.
Not only does it give 100% coverage, but the 1.09x magnification also makes it larger than even the Canon EOS 7D’s display. The benefit of having a viewfinder at all in a compact system camera should not be overlooked, either, with most cameras in this format requiring an add-on unit fitted to the hotshoe, and in bright sunny conditions it is nice to be able to place the camera up to your eye and avoid having to squint at a rear screen. In fact, in any light the process of putting the camera up to your eye engages you with the picture far more.
The rear screen’s wideangle format is utilised by the function descriptions to the side of the image, leaving the composition area relatively clear, or available for more shooting information. It gives a crisp and sharp image that makes reviewing files at the maximum 16.7x magnification ideal for checking sharpness. The coating on the screen does a good job of removing glare, and although thumb and fingerprints are visible when the screen is off they have little effect on viewing.
The display options can bring up a dual-axis level display and most usefully a live histogram. When shooting with the electronic viewfinder, the histogram display allowed me to fine-tune the exposure compensation to optimise the exposure and avoid clipping highlights. The rear screen can also show purely shooting information without an image, for reference when using the viewfinder for composition.
The video functionality should not be overlooked in the NEX-7, as with full 1080p HD at 50fps or 25fps in AVCHD format, or a 1440×1080-pixel format in MP4 quality is impressively clear and action smooth, with a data rate of around 96Mbit/s on our sample once downloaded. Sound is also impressive from the stereo microphone (saved in Dolby digital AC-3) and there is a 3.5mm input port for an external microphone if required.
Images: Samsung NX200 and Leica M9
Although the £1,000-plus price tag of the NEX-7 may cause a deep intake of breath for many, it cannot be treated as simply another compact system camera.
Samsung’s new NX200 has a high-resolution, 20.3-million-pixel APS-C sensor and is therefore a natural competitor to the Sony. While this camera is nearly half the price, it doesn’t offer the same level of control and lacks the all-important viewfinder.
As I have mentioned before, there are some similarities between the NEX-7 and the Leica M9, such as the premium image quality, the stylish design and compact size, and even the manner in which it is held and operated. The Sony NEX-7 is unlikely to replace the M9 for those drawn to the magical red dot but, based on initial reactions around the office and when out shooting with the NEX-7, it already has a following and could become a classic in its own right.
The mass-market appeal of compact system cameras is essential for the category to work. High sales drive down prices and allow development into improved operations and performance.
As photographers, however, we see compact system cameras from a different perspective. They offer a small creative solution, as a second camera or as a replacement for an old heavy camera bag.
The early CSC models are undoubtedly handy, but the NEX-7 is the model that most of us have been waiting for – a camera with DSLR controls and performance in a smaller form, rather than a just a compact with removable lenses.
Models such as the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF2 and Samsung NX11 have come close, but the NEX-7 is the first that feels truly high-end. That is not to say the NEX-7 has got it all right. It is a complicated camera with hundreds of clever functions hidden in the menus. The body and lenses are quite large, so it isn’t quite pocket-friendly, and although the focus is impressive for contrast AF it still has phase-detection systems to compete against.
Overall, though, if you are looking for a CSC, this is the best money can buy.
Sony NEX-7 – Key features
Sitting right in the centre, the pop-up flash springs high above the camera to avoid lens shadow and has a guide number of 6m @ ISO 100
Using the eye sensor just inside the eye cup, this activates when your eye is placed against it and delivers a high-resolution view
Dual electronic level
The on-screen display can be superimposed on the rear screen or the viewfinder, offering both forward and side-to-side levelling in a fighter-jet-style display
3D panorama shooting
The sweep panorama mode is available in 2D and 3D modes, with the 3D allowing a fully 3D image to be viewed on a compatible screen monitor or TV screen High-speed burst shooting. When set in speed priority mode, the NEX-7 is capable of 10fps continuous shooting for fast action, compared with a regular 3fps in other modes
Full HD video
Using the AVCHD format, the NEX-7 can capture video at 1920×1080 pixels at 50fps or 25fps and allows manual-exposure control along with external mic input
Most of the functionality along the right-hand side of the screen can be customised to your requirements, while the screen displays the current settings
Dual custom dials
These principally control the aperture, shutter speed and exposure- compensation functions, but can be customised